dir: Terrence Malick
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Terrence Malick has a rightly earned reputation as a guy who doesn’t like to rush anything. His films, known for their beautiful scenery, leisurely pacing and lack of dialogue, are too few and far between for his isolated, sweaty fans.
The New World is his take on the first, tentative steps the Old World (European pilgrims) took towards its settlement and extermination of the people of the New World (Native Americans). Whilst much of it is historically based, it’s hard not to see everything as allegorical as well. Though she is never named, Pocahontas (Q’Orianka Kilcher) and her fate could just as easily represent the fate of the tribal nations that would come to be exterminated by disease, genocide and booze at the hands of Manifest Destiny.
Sweet lady liquor… Sorry, I just got distracted there for a sec. The pilgrims have set out from England, and set up a colony in Virginia, named after that most dwindling of natural resources, virgins. The year is 1607, and the place is called Jamestown. Their new world is exquisite in its natural beauty, but it is hostile to their attempts at living and thriving. They seem perplexed by the new environment and are unsuited and unskilled at surviving in it. They build a fort, and live in less than splendid isolation, awaiting the return of a ship from England in order to replenish their dwindling supplies. They live in mud-covered squalor for most of the story’s duration.
In the seemingly virginal wilderness surrounding them live the Naturals. That’s what the captain in charge of the fort, John Smith (Colin Farrell) calls them, at least in his mind. You see, another trademark of Malick’s films is that the majority of what is heard is rarely in dialogue between two characters. Not for him the necessity of exposition and explanation via two or more characters sitting about having a good, long chin wag.
Maybe he has a point. Almost every film you’ve ever seen or heard of resolves everything story-wise through people talking to each other. To know what goes on in character’s minds, films usually resort to dull voice over narration to tell us directly, but only for snippets at a time.
Malick takes all that a stage higher, with the vast majority of any voices heard by us representing the internal monologues of the various characters. Both dialogue and voiceovers are written and expressed more as poetry than just obligatory combinations of words, and whilst it makes understanding difficult sometimes, it can also be quite rewarding.
Perhaps he sees no point in having characters just saying ‘I think this, I feel that’ to each other, or in using dialogue to further the plot when he can do it mostly with visuals, and then tell us what people think about it all later. It’s different, I’ll grant him that, but I can see how it might drive audience members up the fucking wall, through the ceiling, and across the roof. His films are very, very much an acquired taste, so much so that recommending them to anyway is a shortcut to disaster, in my not so humble opinion.
But recommend it I do, to those whose tolerance for slow, meandering, complex films is high, because I feel that patience brings its own rewards here, for an audience receptive to The New World’s beauty.
John Smith, despite looking completely wrong for the role he’s expected to play, views the Naturals with awe, admiring their (what he mistakenly sees as) honest and child-like character. He admires the harmony with which they live within nature, as opposed to the desperate struggle he and his men experience.
As a bridge between the old and new worlds, he knows, he knows deep down what will happen to these people, and it gnaws at his insides. He and the Chief’s daughter become close after she saves his life, and we are exposed to scene after scene of Smith and Pocahontas sitting around, cuddling, rolling around in tall grass, and basically killing time together. These scenes seem to comprise 90 per cent of the film’s running time. During these sacred moments, we are either listening to her inner voice talking about how much and how completely she loves him, and when it’s his turn, we’re listening to him think about how awful what he’s doing to her is.
In other words, it’s the standard regret of any guy who’s slept with someone substantially younger than themselves in the heat of love or passion, and then realised that there’s nothing really to talk about with someone whose only interests extend to finding the shiniest looking lip gloss on the market or about what she should write for her book report on Charlotte’s Web.
The origin of the much honoured American holiday of Thanksgiving is also represented, based around the idea of the pilgrims starving to death and being saved by the generosity and sympathy of the Naturals, who gift them with food and the means to sustain themselves for a while longer.
Of course, since this flick doesn’t follow the traditional, whitewashed historical line, the Chief’s intention in all of this is made clear: they are gifting the pilgrims with enough food to last until another weird looking ship can come and take them back over the oceans to where they belong. For, you see, the Naturals may seem all gentle and in touch with nature and all that drippy hippie crap, but they certainly aren’t so simple that they fail to see the threat the pilgrims represent. They know, like we know, what is to come.
The tension between the two worlds escalates and results in a big brawl, which is horrifying in its intensity and visceral in its realisation. As desperate as it seems, the result is never in any doubt. Though a lot of scraggily bearded, mud covered pilgrims do by the farm as well, which is heartening.
Of the squalid peasants on the pilgrim side, it is amusing for me to note yet again that Ben Mendelsohn and Noah Taylor are working in this film together, albeit in minor roles. How they manage it is a mystery to me. They were also in blink-and-you’ll miss them roles in The Proposition recently. It’s good to see them both looking so unhealthy and squalid. I’m sure Ben is grateful for the work.
And jeez, do they look squalid. Malick has elected to have everyone dress down and look as accurately mud-soaked as they must have been all that time ago. These attempts at cinematic realism shouldn’t be confused with a documentary about these events. Nothing in this film, apart from some of the names and locations, should be taken as a history lesson.
Nor do we need it to be. It is more of a romance, and a meditation on nature, and the nature of people’s hearts. On love, on life, all of which exist within this historical framework, but is related to us through disparate thoughts, gestures and images. We feel joy and deep sorrow for Pocahontas as she reconciles herself with her short life and fame as she becomes the most noble of Noble Savage archetypes.
Any film of great beauty, of necessity, must also have great sadness. It is hard not to be saddened by both the fate of such a beautiful, exuberant girl, and of the people she symbolises. But hell, life sucks and then you die for most of the people who have ever existed on this rambunctious planet anyway.
The film is beautiful, it is long, and it is not without fault. The cinematography is, as you would expect, or even demand from a Malick film, sublime. The acting, most of which requires people to stand around appropriately, is passable, since most everything is related in voiceover. The editing is a bit strange, as if fearful that lacking a cut every five seconds or so will result in audiences keeling over unconscious in their hundreds. But I can see how / why they went the way they went, even if I don’t like it.
I have to single out the use of music in the film as well. The reoccurring main theme is the Prelude from Wagner’s Ring cycle, and it exquisitely adds to the overall production and its themes. The prelude itself, so sparse and effective, represents the act, the moment of Creation itself, as the universe coalesces into existence. Pure, yet simple, it builds and builds, enlarging and growing inwards upon itself and outwards, and is so perfectly appropriate to the creation of the New World that I can’t think of a single other piece of music that could have served the role so perfectly.
I was stunned by this film, and the use of that piece of music. Even with the issues I had with some of the stuff that happened within the scope of the film, I truly did love watching this film. The audience for films like this is surely shrinking in this day and age, but I truly love Terrence Malik for still making these films in this instant gratification age.
8 times that there are, and always should be, serious repercussions for pursuing jailbait out of 10.
“All the children of the king were beautiful, but she, the youngest, was so exceedingly so that the sun himself - though he saw her often - was surprised whenever she came out into his presence. Her father had a dozen wives, a hundred children, but she was his favourite. She exceeded the rest not only in feature and proportion but in wit and spirit too. All loved her.” Captain John Smith, The New World.